Reconnecting Punjab: Shahbaz Sharif’s Mixed Signals

Some Diplomatists in Delhi might have protocol and political reasons to frown at a "joint statement' issued by the chief ministers of east and west Punjab in Amritsar on Sunday calling for greater cross-border cooperation between the two provinces.

Pragmatists, however, would want to endorse the engagement between the two Punjabs as a potentially useful tool in the troubled diplomacy between India and Pakistan. With talks between Delhi and Islamabad stuck in a limbo, the positive tone of the joint statement between Prakash Singh Badal and Shahbaz Sharif is very welcome.

Badal's constructive approach to cross-border cooperation stands in contrast to the prevailing nihilism in Kolkata and Chennai. The Chief Minister of West Bengal Mamata Banerjee has refused to support carefully negotiated agreements with Bangladesh and undermined the prospects for a historic breakthrough in India's relations with an important neighbor. Competitive politics in Tamil Nadu have compelled Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to cancel plans to attend the Commonwealth Summit in Sri Lanka.

In recent years, sentiments for reviving cross-border connections have intensified on the Indian side of Punjab and have strong bipartisan support. Capt Amrinder Singh, the Congress chief minister who preceded Badal, was the first to launch cross-border engagement a decade ago.

The current deputy chief minister, Sukhbir Singh Badal, traveled to Lahore last year and outlined an ambitious agenda for cooperation across the Radcliffe Line that divides the two provinces. The joint statement issued after Shahbaz Sharif's return visit reaffirmed the shared interests of the two provinces in "peace, harmony and economic growth".

There is an acute recognition that the two provinces can significantly improve their fortunes by ending the economic separation of the last many decades, forging strong commercial links, expanding connectivity, opening new trade routes, and promoting tourism. At the heart of this is the proposition that the two Punjabs can "leverage each other's potential".

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